“Shark finning” refers to slicing the fins off and discarding the body of the shark at sea while it is still alive. Sharks die from suffocation or are eaten because they cannot move. Environmental activists say this practice is cruel and threatens the survival of some species.
Once the change comes into effect, the ban will prohibit shark finning by all vessels in EU waters and by all EU-registered vessels anywhere in the world, a move its supporters believe will put pressure on countries where shark finning is still practiced.
"Shark finning is one of the main threats to the shark population," said Sandrine Polti, policy adviser to the Shark Alliance. "We're now in a much better position to push for a global shark-finning ban."
Demand for shark fins, mostly for soup and traditional medicine in Asia, and in particular China, means they can fetch up to 1,000 euros ($1,300) each.
Many Asian restaurants around the world serve shark fin soup as a delicacy. It can command $700 a pound and the soup is considered a status symbol.
It is estimated that the global value of the shark fin trade ranges from U.S. $540 million to U.S. $1.2 billion.
The proposed new law, approved by EU ministers and expected to come into effect later this year, closes a loophole in EU rules by which fishermen with special permits are still allowed to remove fins from shark remains at sea.
Under the tighter rules, fishermen will have to land all sharks with their fins attached, although they will be allowed to slice partly through each fin and fold it against the body for ease of storage and handling.
Portugal, concerned about the impact of the changes on fishing revenues, voted against the law, ministers said in a statement, but it was not able to veto the agreement.
The practice also poses a threat to several species that play a vital role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems, environmental groups say.
About one-third of all shark species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Sharks are vulnerable to over-fishing because of their slow growth rate and small number of young.
The EU supplies around a third of all shark fins to the Hong Kong market, the global center of the shark fin trade.
Over 72 million sharks are killed each year for their fins and 10,000 tons of fins are traded through Hong Kong.